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Hitting the Jackpot with Casino Foodservice Design

Casinos — the glitz and glamor segment of the foodservice industry — demand the best of those who work in that space.

lowresmazzoli-familyRivers Casino includes several restaurant conceptsOperators in this segment often require designers and architects to develop and execute multiple restaurants and foodservice outlets in one highly integrated space, and on tight timetables that seem to get faster and tighter every year.

“Casinos never shut down and have super accelerated schedules with many moving parts so paying attention to details throughout the whole process is so important,” says Dwayne MacEwen, principal and founder of DMAC architecture in Evanston, Ill.

MacEwen, who just completed a massive, six-restaurant project for Rivers Casino in New York which will open in February, outlined more of today’s challenges and considerations for casinos hoping to hit the foodservice jackpot.lowresspecifier"The restaurant kitchen has really become a showpiece in a casino concept and we try to play to the pulse of the space." --Dwayne MacEwen, DMAC architecture

Define roles when working with local brands. Forget the watered down “theme” concepts; casinos these days prefer to bring in local restaurants and other recognizable brands and elements from the surrounding city and environment. “We’re moving away from the ‘Aces Café’ — throw-away food and beverage concepts — in favor of established brands or reinterpretations of favorite diners that have legs on their own outside the casino,” says MacEwen.

That said, when working with multiple independent restaurants, sound project management skills, which include clearly defining the roles of each player, remains of utmost importance. “You want to determine who’s ultimately in charge — the casino or the local brand — when directing sign-off decisions,” MacEwen says. “Casinos often give a lot of freedom to independent restaurant operators, but they’re still fronting all the costs.”

From a consulting and architecture point of view, when working with local brands, “the design and food and beverage offering should also be somewhat indigenous and inspired by what’s popular locally,” MacEwen adds. For example, when designing a buffet at a casino in the Chicago area, MacEwen drew on inspiration from the heavy tree, forest-like surroundings to create a pavilion in the forest. This space provides a calming release from the gaming floor with lots of natural light — a rarity in casinos, blonde wood and other “organic” details without too much glitz and glamor.

For another local brand concept — in this case, a steakhouse — MacEwen recreated the classic black and white checkered tile floor that characterized the steakhouse’s original location. To better fit the casino ambiance, he also added some glitz and elegance to this restaurant in the form of Italian black and white marble with concentric rings. “We’re trying to find that middle ground between Vegas and being in your own neighborhood but still enjoying an entertaining night out,” he says.

Identify problems early and maintain communication for faster schedules. Casino projects these days run on faster timetables than ever before. “We’ve been asked to design four to six restaurants in eight weeks,” MacEwen says. “It’s not just about the beautiful millwork and paneling, but also how well the back of the house performs.” To avoid the bureaucratic weeds and that gut-wrenching rush to the finish, MacEwen makes sure he’s working closely with all project players from the get-go, which is a departure from many architects, as some foodservice consultants might attest.

Right away, MacEwen will try to uncover all potential problems and challenges, which allows the team to deal with these issues sooner than later. “The best design comes out of resolving those issues early on,” he says. MacEwen compares this process to the story of how an oyster forms a pearl — it all starts with a grain of sand finding its way inside the cavity causing much annoyance and pain, but after turning the sand over and over, the oyster produces that beautiful gem we all treasure.

Do your due diligence to integrate the front- and back-of-the-house design for both form and function. Just like consultants do, MacEwen looks to connect with the operator to understand the concept and menu, and will even spend time researching and studying the flow and setup of the restaurant brand in its original location. “I like to watch the chef work and see how he moves in the space,” he says. “Why was he disappearing to get things from the back? Can we put more reach-in refrigeration at the front?”

In casinos especially, the boundaries between the front and back of the house have become more blurred. “The restaurant kitchen has really become a showpiece in a casino concept and we try to play to the pulse of the space,” says MacEwen. “We don’t just build the space and give it to an interior designer to decorate or give a blank box to the kitchen designer. We like to create more fluid boundaries, constantly thinking of the negative space and making sure everything is just as efficient as it is beautifully designed.” The materials and finishing should service that bigger idea of function, not just serve as random decor, he adds.

MacEwen also considers what the open kitchen and restaurant looks like on the casino floor when it’s closed. “The buffet might not be open 24 hours a day but the casino is so how does it go into sleep mode?” he says. “We don’t just want that space to go dark, so lighting is super important.”

MacEwen has even thought about the design of the host stands and other structures marking the entrance to the restaurant; at once designing a podium to hide the POS system with blocks of walnut to fit with that aforementioned forest theme. For a waterfront location in Philadelphia, he built a counter-height bar to reflect the decaying wooden piers noticeable just outside, create a base of square tubes to resemble elements of the pier with a long, 30-foot rectangle resting on top that can be used as counter seating during the day and a lit-up resting pad at night even when the restaurant closed.

Balance quality with budget to “right-size” the kitchen and space. Contrary to popular thought, just because casinos have bigger budgets than most, that doesn’t mean the architect, consultant and other players can or should spend extra dollars willy nilly to pack in as much as they can. “Quality is just as important as infrastructure, but it’s important to settle on the right amount of equipment for the space so you can justify using those higher-quality materials,” he says. For example, an operator may not need a massive walk-in if it’s focused on serving super fresh, seasonal food; a smaller walk-in but more frequent deliveries might be more appropriate. This might also help prevent the operator from over-buying food in general.

MacEwen will also often work with the kitchen designer to provide more space if that will create a more efficient kitchen, but at the same time will work with the consultant and operator to “right-size” those needs based on performance, volume and durability — important considerations for high-functioning casinos.

Today’s casinos challenge foodservice consultants and architects to reach their highest level of collaboration and creativity.

To learn more about casino foodservice, check out this story from FE&S.